Jean Augustine: The First Black Woman In Parliament

A trailblazing politician, activist and educator

A trailblazing politician, activist, and educator, Jean Augustine was the first Black woman to be elected to the House of Commons and appointed to the federal cabinet.

She is also responsible for February becoming Black History Month across Canada.

A Brief History Of Jean Augustine

Jean was born in 1937 in Happy Hill, Grenada to Olive and Ossie Simon. Overcoming economic adversity and the loss of her father at a young age, she excelled in school and went on to become a teacher.

In 1960, she immigrated to Canada as a qualified teacher through the West Indian Domestic Scheme. Through the program, she was given immigrant status in exchange for working in family homes for a year.

After completing her contract, she quickly advanced her education and career. In 1963, when she received her Ontario teaching certificate, she began work as an elementary teacher. All the while, participating in grassroots organizations that focused on minority, immigrant, and women’s rights. With her Grenada roots, she was especially active in Caribbean communities and helped organize the first Caribana festival.

During her lifetime, she spent time on many boards for groups related to:

  • Women’s rights
  • Immigrant rights
  • Human rights
  • Racism
  • Discrimination
  • Economic development and industry

She also founded the Toronto Chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada and later became the National President.

She continued her education and in 1980 she graduated with a Master of Education. Following several years with the Toronto Catholic District Schoolboard as a vice principal and principal, she was appointed chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority in 1988.

The Start Of A Successful Political Career

In 1993, Jean entered into politics as a Member of Parliament for Etobicoke-Lakeshore. The achievement made her the first black woman to win a seat and be elected to the House of Commons. Two years later, she proposed that February be Black History Month throughout all of Canada. The motion received a unanimous vote. February became a month to celebrate Black Canadians and their contribution to the nation’s history, heritage, and development.

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From 1993 to 1996, Jean was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister of Canada. In this role, she was Jean Chretien’s trusted voice on committees, in international meetings, and when he was absent from Parliament at the House of Commons. She was also Chair of the National Liberal Women’s Caucus for three terms and chair of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Appointment To The Federal Cabinet

In May 2002, Jean was appointed Secretary of State Multiculturalism and Status of Women. With the appointment, she became the first Black woman appointed to the federal cabinet. Later that year she became a member of the Queen’s Privy Council of Canada and in 2003 she was appointed Minister of State Multiculturalism and Status of Women.

“It says to others and ourselves that Blacks can be in every place in our society. It’s important that no one be able to say that Blacks can’t perform in every segment of Canadian society because we can.” — Jean Augustine following appointment as Minister.

A year before retiring from politics, Jean became the Assistant Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons.

Following her retirement, Jean continued to advocate and in 2007 she became Ontario’s first Fairness Commissioner whose office ensures that foreign-trained professionals get the licenses they need to practice in Ontario.

Jean Augustine’s legacy is everlasting and her accomplishments are a source of inspiration to all Canadians. Her groundbreaking efforts have created equal opportunities and have provided hope to many.

Featured Image – Title: Activités de Noël à Etobicoke. Author: Michael Ignatieff. SourceWikimedia; image resized and cropped